The Summer Harvest
by Ida Livingston of Davis City, IA
When I was a child, Saturday evenings found us at our favorite ice cream stand in Bluffton, Ohio. One year in particular, I can remember noticing that the petunias in front of the establishment were particularly stunning. I asked the owner how he accomplished this and he said he picked off the spent and wilting blooms regularly.
Slightly misunderstanding him, I proceed to go home and pick off every single bloom on the hanging baskets strung across the front of our porch. The household response was about as thrilled as one might imagine. I did, however, learn to pick off only the wilting flowers and the little green developing seed pods behind them.
The principle here, shared by both flowers and most vegetables, is that plants bloom and fruit to set seed to further their species. If this attempt is thwarted, it stimulates the plant to produce more flowers/vegetables. Whereas if it fully succeeds in seeding the next generation, then it has no drive to remain productive.
Vegetables need to be picked regularly to remain productive. Not only does the plant need motivation to keep growing, but having over ripe vegetables promotes disease, spoilage and attracts insects.
Let’s walk through the garden and talk about some of the vegetables and their unique needs. Most of this you’ll already know, but everyone likes to visit the garden this time of year. Especially for a watermelon.
Green beans are an early summer harvest coming in 50-70 days after planting. Depending on the variety and picking preference of course. My grandfather liked his very mature with a fat bean in it. Mom liked hers young and tender. No one likes them stringy. If they are tough when you try to snap them, they are too far along. The toughness will not cook out.
Pick Them She Says, When It’s Hot She Says…
Beans need to be picked regularly to keep them producing. If too many fully mature then the plant will cease to produce. They need to be picked at least twice a week. I like to have staggered plantings 3 weeks apart to keep them coming in fresh.
Don’t pick beans when the leaves are wet from rain, dew, or the water hose/ sprinkler. Wait until the dew has burned off to pick them. Beans are very susceptible to disease and when handled wet this spreads quickly through the whole row and can shorten their productivity dramatically.
Save That Seed
The varieties I like to grow are Contender (bush bean) and the Red Chinese Noodle Bean (pole bean). These are both open pollinated so I can save seed from them. They are both tender and prolific. The Contender tastes better for fresh use but the Chinese Noodle beans are tender for longer and are incredibly prolific, even in poor soil.
If you want to save seed, plant a row that you don’t take any pickings from. Let these fully mature with the pods turning brown before picking. Then spread them out on a sheet or a screen to fully dry. Seeds store best in a freezer. Green bean seed keeps pretty well outside a freezer if kept in a cool dry place out of direct sunlight. They should still germinate all right for 3-4 years.
Shelling Beans and Cowpeas
For shelling or dry beans you need to expect 70-100 days to maturity. When fully dry they “shatter” easily and you can lose some in the garden to self seeding. These are best picked in the leathery brown pod stages. Allow them to finish drying on a screen or sheet before shelling them. These only need to be picked once a week or so.
Beans, Beans, Clean Beans
Khoke and I grow lots of pintos because they are a staple at our house. The pintos are gathered with the dew on and then spread out on a swept concrete pad to fully dry. Then we tread them by walking on them to fully force the shatter. Beans are heavier than the chaff and will find their way to the bottom and then we rake off the plant matter. From there we sift the beans through a couple screens to separate them from the chaff. The first screen allows the beans to fall through and the larger chaff that remains is dumped in a pile to the side. The beans are then sifted through a screen with wire small enough the beans cannot go through. This gets rid of the small debris. Now you are left with all the pinto bean sized pieces which may take some hand sorting. The screens we use are just different sizes of hardware cloth attached to a wooden frame that is about a 3 by 5 feet rectangle and maybe 6 inches deep. It takes two people to shake it.
Cowpeas are grown, prepared and eaten similarly to shelling beans. They can also be picked early and canned as a green bean. My personal favorite is the Brown Crowder pea. These make an excellent Crowder Chowder.
Who Turned Off the Air Conditioning?
Most beans do not like very hot weather. If your plants are blooming profusely but producing no beans, they may be casting their fruit in response to the heat. Somewhere around 96 degrees Fahrenheit, beans will not set fruit. They will bloom and bloom but set no beans. If you live in a hot climate you may need heat tolerant varieties. Catalogs don’t always specify this trait, so look for varieties that were developed in the South.
Aromatherapy Deer Repellent
Something else that loves cowpeas (and beans) are deer. If they ever get started on them, you won’t have a crop. Khoke’s cousin, Nathan Miller, found that putting a t-frame in the garden and hanging his dirty sweaty t-shirt at the end of the day worked really well to deter the deer from the garden. He placed the t-frame upwind of the garden so the strong human scent would carry across the garden at night and this was a very effective deterrent. This t-shirt had to be replaced every day or two with a fresh smelly shirt.
The first thing you can pick on a beet is the greens (not all of them at once). After that you pull beets when their bulbous taproot is the size of a quarter, or you can wait until they swell to fist size or larger. The smaller sizes make cute little pickled beets but they taste the same later on.
I like to pickle beets for Khoke. One year I broke out of the mold and tried a variety of different types of beets; pinks, yellows and the striped Chiogga’s. Thought they would look cute pickled. No way. They ALL lost their color in cooking and turned a pasty gray/white color. Although they tasted the same they did not look appetizing. Not willing to waste them, I found that if I put a few dark red beets in the jar with them, they all turned a nice shade of pink. As it stands I just stick with red beets.
Beets can be overwintered in a cellar in a trough of sand or sawdust. This works great for those who like them fresh. You can also overwinter your seed beets this way and replant them in the spring when they will bolt and set seed.
Beets A Child Could Love
My life would have been a lot easier (at least when I was a child) if I had liked beets. They are healthy, easy to grow, and I just don’t like them. But I am always open to trying them in new ways in hopes of changing this.
My friend Abby Weeks found a way to prepare beets that I’ll admit is the best I have ever tasted. It really is downright good. She found that if you grate beets, dehydrate them, and then roast every last bit of nutrition out of them, they make a great coffee and/or chocolate substitute. They have to be roasted literally to the color of coffee or chocolate but they are great brewed into a beverage or ground into a powder to bake into brownies. I’ll admit her beet brownies don’t taste exactly like chocolate, but I am not sure that I could tell it apart from carob. She has had a lot of success with using this method on butternut squash, sweet potatoes and even daikon radishes. The sugars in these each caramelize differently giving each of them a unique roasted flavor.
One thinks of cabbage as a spring or early summer vegetable but I harvested my spring planted cabbages all the way through September last year. I like to plant both early and late varieties to extend my season.
When I harvest my cabbages, I don’t pull the plant out, I cut the head off. The plant will then sprout several mini heads that look like large brussel sprouts. If I can keep the cabbage loopers out of them, these little cabbages are very tasty. When the little heads become firm, I cut them off and slice them in quarters or halves to sauté them to serve them alone or in a stir fry.
Red cabbage is usually more heat tolerant than the green varieties. You can pull your cabbages (leave the root on for this), and overwinter them in your cellar. As far as that goes, you can pull your mature cabbage heads in the summer and store them in the cellar too if you have too many ready at once. Hot weather can overripen cabbage heads and they can pop open. Some varieties are more resistant to this than others.
Sauerkraut is a great use for cabbage. I make mine right in the jar. I pack my quart with shredded cabbage and then add 1 tsp salt and 1 tbsp apple cider vinegar to the jar, then pour boiling water over it to fill any air gaps in the jar. This ratio is important. Too much salt and vinegar and the cabbage won’t ferment, but too little and there isn’t enough preservative to inhibit unwanted bacteria.
With the jars filled, I put a lid and ring on the jar(s) but I leave the ring very loose. The jars will overflow some and too tight of a lid may cause exploding jars as the cabbage ferments. These jars are set in a tray (to catch any overflow) and allowed to ferment for 10-14 days. At the end of this time I scoop off the top layer and refill the jars, usually emptying one to do so. The rims and lids are wiped clean and the ring is screwed on tight. Then I can it in a waterbath canner for 5 boiling minutes much to the dismay of my probiotic loving friends.
This jar method can work for those who don’t wish to can it, just make it regularly in batch sizes that you will use up quickly. Abby Weeks makes hers in a crock and adds onions to her ferment cabbage. This takes kraut to a whole new level and smells amazing.
The Forgotten Fall Cabbage
Don’t forget to start some cabbage seed in July for some fall/winter cabbages. The ground is probably much too hot to attempt direct seeding so these should be started indoors somewhere.
Spring sown and summer harvested carrots tend to taste stronger and can be a little tough. At least here in southern Iowa, I think it comes from the hot, dry spells we have. Summer sown and fall harvested carrots tend to be sweeter and more tender, or so it seems in my garden.
With summer sown carrots, it can be a trick to get them to sprout. Often the ground is too hot in July or August for them to want to germinate. But I have gotten them to do it by watering them well, keeping them moist and very lightly sprinkling straw over the row. This creates filtered light and shades the ground which both cools it and slows the wicking away of moisture.
With the spring sown carrots, a long span of hot dry weather as they near maturity will put them into dormancy. Then if they get a soaking rain, this can snap them out of the dormancy and some of them will be tempted to bolt, and try to set seed. These blooming plants will not have an edible taproot. It becomes slimmer, tough and stringy.
For long carrots, you may have to loosen the soil when you pull them. Otherwise you may end up with only the top in your hand, or half the taproot. We have a clay loam soil base here and usually have to loosen the soil with a garden fork or shovel. Wet soil also tends to let carrots loose easier, too.
Carrots can be overwintered in a sand or sawdust trough in your cellar. Some areas can also overwinter them by mulching them heavily as my neighbor Abby does. You just have to figure out how to get them out once the ground freezes.
When I was a child we used to always walk our rows of corn and pull the suckers off. These are little side shoots that grow from the base of the plant. The idea was that they would take away from the plant/harvest, but really they do not. The suckers don’t usually produce any real ears of corn themselves but they don’t dock the harvest either so it isn’t worth the time to walk through pulling them off.
When the ‘Coons Didn’t Get It All
You are not the only one who likes sweet corn. Raccoons do too. And they will beat you to it if they can. As your corn nears its time to pick, be prepared to sleep beside the patch with your guard dog or some other drastic maneuver. It will take proactivity on your part to actually get to eat the corn you grew.
When the kernels swell to where the husk begins to feel tight over them, your corn is probably ready to pick. Pull the husk back from the tip to check a sample ear. You want juicy ears that are mature enough to be sweet. When they overmature and the kernels begin to dimple and dent, the sugars are converting to starch and they become chewier and do not taste as sweet.
If you are canning corn that is a little on the starchy side, leave yourself some extra headspace in the jar and fill it with water. Starchy sweet corn will swell a little.
High Protein Chick Supplement
I have heard that when the corn is pollinating you can put a couple drops of mineral oil on the corn silk to help prevent corn earworms. I don’t usually bother with this. I can share the tip of my corn with them, then when I am husking corn in my yard, I toss the earworms to the setting hens that circle me while I husk.
The two main groups of cucumbers are slicers and picklers. Both need to be picked regularly to keep them producing. They also need plenty of water to produce well and to prevent them from becoming bitter or tough skinned.
Slicing cucumbers are usually much longer than the pickling varieties. These cukes can grow crooked if they sprawl with the vines on the ground. If you trellis them, the hanging cucumbers will grow straight and are much easier to pick.
Feed Them to Him
I like to plant a staggered crop of cucumbers. By August, mine look tired, they develop a tough skin and taste bitter. Not that I would know. Khoke is the one who eats them fresh out of the garden, not me. But Khoke notices the bitter flavor, so by August I have a fresh batch ready to pick. Drought stress can also make cucumbers bitter.
In a Pickle…
Pickling cucumbers can be picked small and canned whole, or medium sized and sliced. You can also pick these when they are much too large which is when the developing seed is tough. These cucumbers can still be pickled, they just need to be peeled and the seed cavity scraped out before you chop and pickle them.
Any Ball canning book will have several good pickle recipes. If you follow the directions you should have good crunchy pickles. The pickles I make every year are Bread and Butter pickles and Dill pickles. I always bring my pickle brine to a boil before pouring it over the cucumbers in the jar. Then I cap these hot jars and put them straight into the water bath canner that is already boiling. Then I bring it back up to a boil quickly and boil them for no longer than 5 minutes.
Other crunchy pickle tips are to cut the flower end (the end opposite the stem) off the cucumber and discard it. It is rumored to have enzymes that make your pickles soft. Putting a grape leaf in with your pickles really does work to make them crisp. Any grape will do. I use wild grape leaves instead of stripping my domestic plants.
Purple is the color we all picture when we think of eggplant. But there are many shades, shapes and sizes, large and small, round, elongated and egg shaped, in red, purples and even white. The biggest challenge to growing eggplant is keeping the flea beetles under control. Apparently eggplant is a favorite food and they will absolutely decimate a plant if given half a chance.
The first thing to harvest in the garlic bed is scapes. Garlic sends up bloom stalks called scapes that need to be cut off so the bulb will swell to a good size. If the scapes are left on, the bulb will be much smaller. In the meantime the scapes are great chopped into soups, stir frys and other summer savory dishes. They add a nice touch with their mild garlic flavor. Scapes can be frozen or pickled to preserve them but they really don’t dehydrate well.
Garlic bulbs are harvested around the first week of July here. The plants start to die back, striping the green leaves with brown. It is best to not wait until the top is completely dead. If the ground is dry and hard, some of the cloves may slough off and stay in the ground. Or worse, the stem pops off and leaves the whole bulb in the ground. Take a garden fork or spade to the garden with you to harvest them in case you need to loosen the soil a little or dig out a bulb that tried to stay planted.
Once they are pulled they need to be spread out somewhere, out of the sun, to finish drying. You don’t want too much sun on the bulbs or they can overheat and become damaged. Sun damage to the bulb causes the clove to become translucent and then rot.
My garlic is a soft neck garlic so once it has fully dried then I braid it and hang the braids in a cool dark place for storage. I also like to dehydrate and grind my own garlic.
Homemade Garlic Powder
To dry garlic I bribe some neighbor kids with cookies to come over and help me peel a big bowl full of garlic cloves. Then we run the cloves through our hand crank meat grinder. This soft ground garlic is then spread on cookie sheets and dried in my oven. The oven needs to be only warm, often I keep the oven door ajar, and make sure I stir it now and then. Once the garlic is dry we scrape it off the pans (this can take some doing), and we grind it in our Corona grinder. The smell of this freshly ground garlic is amazing.
Lettuce or Other Salad Greens
If a person can resist the temptation of just sowing lettuce seed and endure the tedium of individual transplanting, the payoff is amazing. Space your lettuce transplants 6-8 inches apart for some of the most beautiful leaf lettuce heads you’ll ever see. Mom would plant her Simpson lettuces a foot apart and have beautiful dinner plate sized “heads.” They were really lovely.
My personal favorite lettuce is Buttercrunch, a very tender, crunchy lettuce with a fitting name. I don’t usually plant head lettuce. They will sometimes rot inside the head and my leaf lettuces never do.
When picking my leaf lettuces or other salad greens, I don’t cut off the whole plant unless I am thinning my row, I just pick off some of the outer leaves. The plant can continue to grow and be harvested a little at a time over the season. After the lettuce row, I pick some spinach, chard, and maybe a few beet greens to throw into the salad before heading to the house.
Most salads prefer cool weather and the heat of summer gets them thinking about the next generation and they’ll “bolt”. This means they’ll send up a bloom stalk to set seed. When they begin to send up this stalk the leaves start to taste bitter. You can still harvest a few leaves once they begin to bolt, just soak the leaves in cool water for an hour or two, end down, to pull out the bitter flavor. After a while they’ll get too bitter for this to work.
It helps to stagger your plantings and then keep them well watered as it begins to get hot. This will greatly extend your salad season.
When your plants bolt, it doesn’t hurt to let them go ahead and make seed. Take your hoe and cut off your first round or two to bolt and save seed only from the late bloomers. I like to turn around and sow some of this seed for a fall lettuce. If the ground is hot they won’t sprout. Sow them, water very well and then lightly sprinkle straw over the row to filter the sun’s intensity.
Not Grown to Feed the Wildlife
Rabbits love lettuce and salad greens too. They are a particular nuisance when they have habitat close to the garden. Woods edge, fence rows, hedges, etc. are all habitat or cover. If you plant your crops beloved of rabbits a good 30 yards from cover and keep the garden mowed around, this deters rabbits because predators such as hawks, owls, coyotes and even dogs and cats love to catch rabbits if they can.
Peppers need to be planted about 18 inches apart, depending on how large the plants get. Fertilizing pepper plants is a somewhat debated point. If you give peppers too much nitrogen then pepper grows all plant and no fruit. However, I have never had any trouble with this. Most of my life I have not had soil fertility that was overdone by extra nitrogen. In fact, when I was growing up we mulched our peppers with chicken manure.
Chicken manure is too hot of a manure for most vegetables, but peppers handle it well. We would plant our peppers and then use the manure as mulch. We were careful not to have the manure touch the plant stem, which could burn it. Anyway, these peppers always did well and the manure was hot enough that there was no weed pressure whatsoever. We never had trouble with the lack of fruit set.
At the end of the garden season when I am pulling the last of the harvest, I don’t just get hot peppers to dry but also the bell peppers. I dry these for winter use. These are cored and sliced and then oven dried. Most sweet peppers are thick enough fleshed that they don’t dry whole very well so I slice them.
Breathe a Little Fire…
There is an amazingly diverse assortment of hot peppers to accommodate the widely varying uses of them. Green chilis, pickled jalapeños, cayenne, and the ever changing “worlds hottest pepper” titles. I grow hot peppers for myself and use them in my kitchen carefully. Khoke has a heat tolerance equivalent to the Scoville unit zero. This came up early in our relationship when Khoke told me, “The measure of my manhood is not defined by the pepper heat I can or cannot eat.” Good for him and well said! In the meantime I pickle jalapeños to my heart’s content and make flaming hot sauces that will improve one’s circulation.
Ida’s Hot Sauce
2 gal. hot peppers of choice (coarsely chopped)
1/3 c. sugar
6 c. vinegar
4 c. tomato juice
6 c. water
4 cloves garlic, halved
1/3 c. salt
1 tsp dry basil
Cook the peppers, vinegar, water, salt, and garlic until soft. Strain out the seeds and pulp through a food mill or strainer. Add the sugar, tomato juice, and basil. Stir well and ladle into ½ pint jars. Water bath for 20 minutes.
Any peppers, including bells, can be used for this. I use jalapeño and habanero peppers, jalapeños for flavor, and habanero for heat. Use what works for you.
Hot peppers don’t pay much attention to the Scoville unit assigned to them. They have the range they can reach but how hot they actually get is largely influenced by how much water the plant has while they are growing. A very wet year can render jalapeños as mild as bell peppers and a very dry year concentrates the capsaicin and tasting them can turn you into someone else’s entertainment.
As a child I can remember watching my great grandparents sharing a halved cantaloupe with the seeds scooped out and replaced with vanilla ice cream. In my early teens my family discovered the joy of cantaloupe ice cream at the Milan Ohio Watermelon festival. We loved this delicacy enough to learn how to make our own.
We planted melons in hills when I was growing up. In my gardens now I just cut a shallow trench with my hoe, sprinkle in some compost and set my seed or plants about 6 inches apart. This is not too close in well-fed soil.
Once they are up I like to mulch them well. Melons don’t really like their vines or melons sitting on wet soil. This encourages disease problems. On very wet years, the mulch can hold in too much moisture and it can also provide hiding places for squash bugs or cucumber beetles. But generally, the benefits of mulch outweigh the drawbacks.
Some in the cantaloupe family will change color as they ripen and are easily identified when ripe this way. For most of the melons on the cantaloupe/muskmelon family you are not only looking for a mature size and color but also when the stem lets the melon loose easily. The stem should disconnect with very little force. The blossom end of the melon (opposite the stem) should also be soft and fragrant at this time and the stem end will be very fragrant.
Melons are very susceptible not only to frost but cool weather. It can make them more vulnerable to disease. They also need relatively hot weather to sweeten. If you wish to hasten their ripening or lessen the chance of spoilage in cool wet weather, prop the little melons up off the ground by setting them on a block of wood, a brick or an upside down tin can. In really hot weather, this extra exposure may sunburn them. Overwatering the plants in the midst of drought stress, when they have melons nearly ripe, can split the rinds.
There are 3 primary groups of standard onions. There are Short day, Intermediate day, and Long day onions. The farther north your latitude location is, the longer summer day length you have. Different types of onions require different day length hours to bulb.
Short day onions only require 10-12 hours of day length to begin swelling bulbs. Long day onions need 14-16 hours of daylight and Intermediate onions need 12-14 hours. Short day onions do not do well in the north and Long day onions do not do well in the south but Intermediate day onions can usually be grown in both. You will want to plant Short day varieties if you are at or below the 36 degree latitude line which is more or less the Oklahoma/Kansas border.
A great place to buy onion plants if one is interested is from Dixondale Farms, a fourth generation family owned business.
PO Box 129
Carrizo Springs, Texas 78834-6129
Grow Them From Seed Yourself
If seeding onions you’ll either need to start them indoors in January or wait until August. The August seeded ones will be transplanted when you plant your garlic and they will overwinter to finish growing and bulbing the following spring.
Nevermind, Too Much Work…
If you skip the work and tedium of starting your own onion seed then you can buy either onion sets or plants in the spring. Onion sets can be bought to plant for either green onions or bulbing onions. When planting them to use as green onions you want them planted deep, 4-6 inches is not too deep. The deeper they are, the longer the tender white onion you have. The flipside is, if your soil is not loose enough, very deeply planted green onions can break off when pulling them. I also plant green onions only about 1 inch apart. They do not get very big, only about thumb thickness (if that much) before I start pulling them. These onion sets can be planted in staggered plantings to lengthen their harvest. Plant a week’s worth once a week for 4-6 weeks.
If I am planting onion sets for bulbing I want these planted very shallow so that when the bulb wants to swell, it does not have to fight soil compression. When planting onion plants, these too are planted as shallow as I can get away with. Sometimes a little depth is required simply to hold the plant in place but later, when the plant’s roots are established and I go back to hoe or pull weeds, I will pull the soil away from the budding bulb. I want no pressure on its sides so that it can reach maximum size.
Onions, particularly bulbing onions, are heavy feeders and need well-fed soil or plenty of supplemental compost to grow in. They also need plenty of (but not too much!) water, especially when they are swelling their bulbs.
Onion tops are very important, each leaf is a ring on the onion bulb. The thicker and more abundant these leaves are, the thicker and more numerous the onion rings will be, which also means the larger the onion bulb. When these leaves fold over and crimp, the onion ring it is connected to stops growing. It is important when hoeing, cultivating or working in the garden to be careful to not damage the onion tops.
We had a rat terrier when I was growing up named Dandi. Dandi loved to help us keep the chickens and guineas out of the garden and strawberry patches. She would run like a bullet through the garden to chase them out – flattening the onions in her way as she went. The chorus of groans and shouts that followed her never slowed her down.
Delicate and Desperate Measures
The hardest part about growing onions is always managing the weed pressure. The plants are very fragile, making weeding, hoeing, and/or cultivating them a delicate business.
The Nordells’ system for raising weedless onions has more than a little appeal, best understood by anyone who has ever grown and weeded onions.
Mulching onions may or may not be an option depending on your soil and rainfall. We tried mulching onions when I lived in Tennessee. Although we had good soil drainage, we had far too much rainfall and our onions just rotted in the mulch. Here in southern Iowa, although our soil has a heavier clay base, we have almost half the rainfall that we did in Tennessee, and on a normal or dry year, we can get away with mulching our onions to help control weed pressure.
Harvesting and Storage
When most of my onions are ready to harvest in early/mid July, the top will have already begun sending its strength to the bulb. When the bulb has reached its maximum size it will begin to prepare to cure with its outer layers papering as they dry, the stem becomes weak and the top tips over. I find that I have a few that will not do this on their own and somehow stay erect. If they stay upright too long moisture collects in the stem and rots it.
When about half of my onions have tipped over on their own I go out and tip the rest over. Then after 3-4 days, I will go out and pull all my onions. I will lay a handful of onions on the row they were pulled from and then lay the tops from the next handful over the bulbs of the previous and continue doing so on down the row. The tops shade the bulbs just a little to help prevent them from being scalded by the sun while they dry in the field some. Once they have dried somewhat (after 2-3 days) then I collect them and spread them out on a porch or shed floor, somewhere dry but out of the sun, to finish drying. However, it is better to pull them fresh from the field and spread them on the porch or shed floor right away than to let them get rained on once pulled. Once fully dry I will sort and then either braid or crate them for storage.
Egyptian walking onions are a great perennial onion that has edible onion bulbs on the bottom and mini bulblets on top for replanting. Shallots are a near cousin to onions and are planted like garlic and grow otherwise like onions. I like to plant fall planting of shallots and also staggered spring plantings to extend my harvest of fresh garden shallots. I use these in my early spring and summer cooking, saving enough to make bulbs for replanting. Planted shallots will divide into 4-8 or more new shallots. Potato onions grow in a very similar way.
I have not had much success growing shallots and Egyptian onions in raised beds. Raised beds freeze much colder and faster than the ground level soil and my alliums have frozen out when planted in raised beds but do just fine when planted at normal ground level.
Garden peas, English peas, snow peas, edible pod peas are all more or less the same thing. Cow peas are something else altogether and sweet peas are a toxic ornamental.
The tender green garden pea is a sweet early spring legume. They can be planted quite early and are more cold tolerant than heat tolerant. They aren’t called snow peas for no reason. They do require some extra care if planted when temperatures are still cold enough to threaten snow.
I usually plant my peas after the ground is both fully thawed out and dry enough to work. Most peas should be trellised somewhat, it definitely makes them easier to handle. I usually just plant a double row and let the tendrils tie the two rows together. This is not as good as trellising but it works okay.
Peas do not require much in the way of isolation distance for seed saving. You can get away with about 20 ft or so between varieties and still keep your seed true. I usually plant a short row of edible pod peas for fresh eating but I plant a nice long row of shelling peas for canning.
Home Sweet (Someone Else’s) Home
Be forewarned. Picking, shelling, and canning garden peas is T-E-D-I-O-U-S and time-consuming. One summer, Khoke and I were planning to spend a couple days visiting my friend Regina Bambrick-Rust at the White Rose Catholic Worker farm in LaPlata, Missouri. Khoke was setting up a single sweep horsepower unit there and I rode along to visit with Regina. I had a gunny sack full of peas I’d picked but didn’t have time to shell and can them before I went, so I took them and a box of jars along. While I visited, I shelled peas and then used her pressure cooker to can them at a home away from home.
When ordering seed potatoes it can be hard to know how much is a reasonable amount to buy. One wants to have enough but not so much as to have an unusable amount of excess. For people who like potatoes and have reasonably well fed soil, 25 pounds of seed potatoes per adult is a reasonable amount to plant.
The best potato crop I can remember was a year that we planted 200 pounds of seed potatoes and got 2,000 pounds in return. This is a 10 to 1 return, which is an exceptional crop for potatoes.
We usually buy Kennebec potatoes. I like their relatively uniform shape and they are easy to peel, they are also a reliably productive variety. I don’t care for the thick skin of a russet potato or the shape of most red potatoes. Yukon Gold is one of the best tasting varieties on the market and they store the best of any I know overwinter, but they are not as productive as most varieties.
Potatoes have “eyes”, little dimples that will grow a white shoot that turns into a plant stem when planted. Seed potatoes are usually cut to make more plants per potato. I try to cut my seed potatoes so that they have at least two eyes per potato but are not cut smaller than a golf ball. Egg-size is good. These cut potatoes are then left to air dry a couple days before planting. That is ideal anyway. There have been plenty of times I have cut and planted them the same day when in a time crunch.
My potato rows are usually made by a hoe following the stringer to keep the row straight. I don’t add manure to the row, this can scab the potatoes. I have known people who plant their potatoes very deep, this is not necessary. Once the potatoes begin to grow, Khoke and I will go out and hill them at least twice, leaving just the top 3-4 inches poking out of the ground. They grow their tubers along the buried stalk. After they have been hilled a couple times then we let them grow. Once they start blooming, potatoes need plenty of water to swell the tubers. They don’t like wet feet so no standing water, just plenty to drink while the potatoes are putting on size.
When the potato tops start to die back, the tubers have reached full size. This is the time they are thickening their skin. Once the tops have fully died down, then we dig them. We like to plow the potatoes but leave them out unpicked overnight to dry and harden the skin a little. It seems the potato skin can be a little tender and easily damaged when first dug.
Sorting and Storage
As they are picked up, I sort my potatoes by size. The big ones are crated together, as are the medium sized ones. The little potatoes, along with the cut or otherwise damaged ones are set aside. We usually rinse off the large and medium potatoes with a water hose, then air dry them before sending them to the cellar.
The small or damaged potatoes I dump into my wringer washer and wash in plain water. The washer gets them very clean in a hurry, but it also bruises them so they cannot be stored. I take these washed potatoes and put them either whole or chopped into canning jars, cover the potatoes with either chicken broth, milk, or tomato juice to make soup bases for later. Then I can the potatoes in a pressure cooker for 40 minutes at 10 lb pressure.
Most pumpkins, winter squash and gourds need lots of room to grow. One year I had birdhouse gourd vines grow nearly 16 feet on either side of the row they were planted in. The watermelons planted next to them were not very happy about it.
Pumpkins are more or less an overgrown watered down squash when it comes to flavor. If you want really good pumpkin pies, you’ll skip the true pumpkin and make the pie out of butternut squash.
Birdhouse gourds and their near kin are night blooming plants that are commonly pollinated by the Sphinx moth, also known as the Hummingbird moth. This moth in its larval life is what we all know as the Tomato Hornworm.
Harvesting and Storage
When harvesting any of the Pumpkins/Gourds/Squash, I wait until the vines die back but before a hard frost. Frost can damage the rind and inhibit the storage quality. While we pick and put them onto a wagon I am careful to not throw them unless Khoke is catching. We don’t want to bruise them, they don’t store well if bruised. We also don’t try to store any that have the stem popped off.
These store well someplace relatively cool but, more importantly, dry. If someone has trouble overwintering their pumpkins/squash you can wash them and then dip them in a weak bleach solution of 1 part bleach to 9 parts water. But honestly, I always have butternut squash that lasts from harvest to harvest and I never wash them at all.
Leaving My Mark…
A fun thing I like to do early in the year is walk through my patches with something sharp to scratch quips into the rind of a handful of squash or melons. This is fun to then stumble across at harvest. Harvesters come across squash with someone’s name scratched on its surface or a humorous saying or snarky note. The scratched surface scars over making the etching permanent. If one scratches too deeply it will injure the fruit and it may rot, just scratch hard enough to break the surface but not deep into the flesh.
Summer squash is one of those vegetables enjoyed best after a 3 season fast. I eat them until they cease to appeal to me in the summer and then I await the return of the growing season to invite them to my table.
I like my zucchini or yellow crookneck picked small, sliced and fried with the lightest of breading. Young patty pan squash are amazing grated to make fritters. These are all wonderful but when I have to choose only one of these to meet the isolation distances required for seed saving, as they will all cross, then I will choose zucchini as it is the most versatile. I can substitute zucchini for any other summer squash. I probably could grate yellow crookneck as a substitute in zucchini bread but it doesn’t seem quite the same…
Like anyone, I still fall into the temptation of planting my summer squash plants too close. The seeds, though large for a seed, look small in a row and I always have to thin them. This may not be all bad considering how much cucumber beetles and squash bugs love them. One year I had cucumber beetles wipe out three-quarters of everything in the squash/melon family before they were 3 inches tall.
In the meantime you will want your final squash row to have plants spaced 18-24 inches apart. Too close impedes air circulation, thus promoting disease, and insects can easily travel from one plant to the next for taste testing and carrying disease with them.
Keep your squash picked regularly to keep them producing. I twist mine to pick them. If you use clippers, dip them in a sanitizing solution such as rubbing alcohol or diluted bleach so you don’t spread disease from one plant to the next inadvertently.
When I lived in Tennessee my family eventually quit growing pumpkins and squash due to the insect pressure we had there. The cessation was also in part to the fact that we found we could grow sweet potatoes with much greater ease and they could be prepared in many of the same ways we enjoyed pumpkins; in pie, breads, steamed, and many other sweet or savory dishes.
The Bumper Crop
My father viewed sweet potatoes as a drought resistant crop (which they are), so he didn’t irrigate them. Then one year he decided to try laying drip tape on one of the sweet potato rows just to see what would happen. The difference was amazing! He had many times more pounds of sweet potatoes for that row compared to the others. He had to build custom stackable crates that year to store them all.
Once we had that many, we weren’t quite sure how to eat them all. We’re talking about hundreds of pounds of sweet potatoes. The answer came in February. We had been buying a layer blend of chicken feed from a local feed store. For some reason that year shipping choked midwinter and the feed store ran out for 2-3 weeks. Chickens don’t like sudden diet changes and they were about to have one.
Not sure what to do, Dad decided to try feeding the hens sweet potatoes. To make them soft enough we would put a pot full of sweet potatoes on the back of our wood cookstove and cook them over the course of the day for the next morning’s feeding. The result was amazing and we never went back to buying commercial layer feed. These hens laid an egg a day per bird – in the winter – which was better than what they had been doing on the commercial feed. Ever after, we planted extra sweet potatoes to feed to not only the chickens but to our pigs.
The Good, The Bad?, and the Ugly
Our longtime favorite variety has been Beauregard. The only variety that beats it for flavor in my experience is the Porto Rico variety. This is a variegated white sweet potato that takes a long season (120 days), is not very productive, or attractive, but they have no equal in flavor. This is the single sweetest sweet potato I have ever tasted. They just tend to be small and when cooked it is far more appetizing than it looks.
Sweet potatoes are easy to start at home. Select some of your best specimens and put the sweet potato, root side down, into a jar with water that it can reach into. One end of the tuber grows roots and the other grows the plant top. Sometimes it is hard to tell which end is which. Take your best guess and if you don’t see the top trying to send out shoots in a couple weeks, flip it upside down and try again.
Once the tuber has shoots that are several inches long springing out of the top, cut these off about 1 inch from the tuber. This to help reduce the chance of passing on a disease the tuber may happen to have. These cuttings can be collected and put into another jar of water where they will grow roots. It is best to replace the water with fresh water every couple days. The tuber will continue to grow more shoots that can be cut when ready. Each shoot will make a plant. Anywhere from 10-25 plants per adult, depending on how much you want to eat them, is a reasonable expectation for planting. Plant more if you are feeding livestock.
If you are buying sweet potato slips (plants), a great place to buy them is from Calvert Farms, a small family business with reasonable prices.
181 County Road 458
Cullman, AL 35057
When all danger of frost is well past, Khoke will prepare the sweet potato row by hilling it. This keeps the sweet potatoes from having wet feet, soggy soil promotes disease. When the tubers grow in hills, they do not have as much soil compression to work against as the sweet potatoes grow. The downside is these hilled rows dry out faster and may need to be rescued by soaker hoses in dry weather.
As long as they have enough water and the weed pressure is kept under control, sweet potatoes are pretty low maintenance until fall. They don’t have any glaring disease or insect problems. You may sooner have wildlife issues. The wildlife that won’t touch your pumpkin or squash plants will definitely eat sweet potato vines. Deer can mow them off, so will groundhogs as can rabbits. You will want to have a plan for the wildlife affecting your garden.
Sweet potatoes do have vines. If you plant your rows 4 feet apart, expect them to grow together. They can be mulched to hold in moisture and combat weeds. The flipside of mulch is that it can encourage rodents by providing a secondary cover under the leaves. However, in my experience, the drawbacks of mulch rarely outweigh the benefits.
Harvesting and Storage
We always give our sweet potatoes as much time as possible to grow; waiting until frost to harvest them. I have seen (irrigated) sweet potatoes that easily weighed over 5 pounds each, with a 2-3 pound average. Practically speaking, most people do not want sweet potatoes this big. Most want them 6-12 ounces in size, not something as big as a football. If you fear yours will get too big, by all means, dig them earlier. A lot of commercial farmers do because there is no market for oversized sweet potatoes.
If you’re looking for as many sweet potatoes as possible then wait until frost for harvesting. This is more tricky because sweet potatoes can handle no frost whatsoever and if you let them get frosted without immediately disconnecting the tubers from the vine, then the dead plant matter gets pulled down into the tuber rendering them inedible. The vines hold the plant’s circulatory highways and this needs to be disconnected in the event of frost. You can either disconnect these vines in advance of the frost in the forecast or immediately after you see the glaze of ice crystals on their leaves in the morning. This isn’t something you see and then wait to do until after you get home from work. You need to be pulling these vines before the frost is fully melted off.
Once the vines are disconnected then you can find a time in the next week that works in your schedule to dig them. We dig ours and then I like to hose them down with water and let them air dry before crating them for storage. Sweet potatoes need to be cured to store well. This is keeping them at 70 degrees or above for a couple weeks before sending them to the cellar. If they are not cured they’ll get rotten spots. However, my father didn’t cellar store his, he just kept them in stackable crates upstairs all winter long and we had no trouble keeping them through the storage seasons.
When I lived in Tennessee, my family raised produce that we sold at our family produce stand. The most popular vegetable that we sold was tomatoes. Early one season, right as our greenhouse tomatoes were beginning to ripen salable numbers of ripe tomatoes, Bubby Mercer, a new customer who would come to be a close family friend, pulled in our driveway to buy tomatoes. After being satisfied with a bag of beautiful tomatoes, he sent my sister and me back to the greenhouse to find some small, lumpy, or otherwise imperfect tomatoes to take home to tease his wife with. After she got done fussing about the state of the tomatoes, he’d pull out the good ones.
There are lots of different types of tomatoes, encompassing a wide range of the color spectrum with fruit coming in many shapes and sizes. Beyond that, the plants have two basic body types, determinate and indeterminate. Determinate plants are compact and are great for small backyard gardens and container plants. Indeterminate plants are much more sprawling and definitely benefit from staking and/or caging.
The leaves on these plants vary somewhat in shape as well. Often cherry or grape tomatoes will have finer lace-like leaves, the Amish Goatbag tomatoes wear their leaves with an apathetic attitude, and the Brandywine family is what is called a “potato leaf” variety. It can be helpful to be aware of leaf patterns for when you bring your plants home from the nursery and the tags fall out somehow.
My tomato plants are always bedded down with mulch of some kind. This holds moisture in, keeps the plants clean, and keeps soil borne diseases from getting a jump start (when mud splashes on the leaves). I avoid using black plastic; although it does keep the weeds down it can overheat the soil and plant which can cause the plant to drop its bloom.
Fruit Set Issues
When temperatures reach the mid to upper 90’s, depending on the tolerance of the plant, tomatoes can “drop” their bloom when they get too hot. Nothing noticeably happens to the bloom except it won’t set fruit. Fruit that is already set will continue to develop and is in no danger. Later in the season, as the weather cools off the plants will go back to setting fruit.
I noticed this most when I lived in Tennessee. At that time I raised seed for a seed company and one year, one of the five varieties I was sent to grow happened to be one developed in Russia. These cool weather tomatoes did not like our Tennessee heat and humidity. Although they were planted in late April and were growing and blooming all summer, they did not actually start setting fruit until almost September. I managed to only collect enough seed from that variety before frost to replace what I was sent.
Indoor plants can sometimes have issues with setting fruit simply because they didn’t get pollinated. Most tomatoes do not need insects for pollination, they simply need to be disturbed. Normally wind shakes the plant, dislodging the pollen within the bloom to fall and pollinate itself within the flower. You can spray your tomato blossoms with a little water in a squirt bottle and it should disturb the bloom enough to dislodge the pollen.
Staking tomatoes is beneficial for a number of reasons, besides holding the plant upright for ease of picking, it also keeps them from getting dirty and makes insects work just a little harder to get to the fruit. Air flow through the plant is impeded with the vines on the ground and this makes them more vulnerable to diseases, particularly anthracnose.
One can stake tomatoes on a sturdy solitary stake, tying the vines upright to the stake. One can also use three smaller stakes or cage the tomatoes. Most of the tomato cages that one can buy are small and/or flimsy. The best tomato cages I ever saw were made by an old neighbor named Preston Carter. He got a roll (5 feet tall by 150 feet long) of 10 gauge, 6×6 welded steel wire mesh used for reinforcing concrete slabs. He cut this into lengths that, when rolled with the ends crimped to hold a circle, made a 2 foot diameter cage that was open on top and bottom. He placed these and then tied them to short stakes to anchor them. These cages were extra sturdy, had squares that one could easily pick tomatoes through, and then could be used year after year if stored in a shed.
Another method is to build a frame over your tomato row from which you can dangle lengths of twine that hang nearly to the ground. Onto the twine you can attach plastic tomato clips that also clasp loosely around the tomato stem. This method is what is usually done in a greenhouse but can be duplicated in the outdoor garden. This method can also require some pruning so you only have 1 or 2 primary tomato stems/vines/stalks to tie up.
Pruning tomato plants is a long disputed gardening practice. In indeterminate (and determinate) tomato vines, between the primary stem and each leaf coming off the stem, is a shoot or sucker that is a secondary vine. This is what gets “pruned” off. They pop off easily by hand. Some say you get more tomatoes by cutting off all the excess branches. The claim is that these extra vines pull the plant’s energy into growing plant not fruit. Those who argue against this state that logic suggests more vine equals more fruit.
Both sides are right in different ways. A pruned plant still produces plenty of tomatoes. The pruned plant is much simpler to tie up or stake and the tomatoes get plenty of air circulation to help discourage disease. Pruning takes extra time and with less leaf cover, tomatoes are more susceptible to sunburn.
An unpruned indeterminate tomato plant grows many vines. Some plants get more carried away with it than others. The most aggressive I have seen are the Amish Goatbag tomatoes. You do get some more tomatoes with the unpruned but there’s a good chance that you can lose the extra due to decay from less air circulation and the extra cover harboring insects, cutworms or tomato hornworms.
If you want to get more plants out of your plants, pop off a few of the suckers and put the ends in a jar of water. These secondary vines will grow roots, and then they can be planted out. Just be careful not to accidentally pop off the top of the primary vine. Replace the water in the jar every couple days to keep it fresh.
If the weather happens to be very dry and then you get a soaking rain or over-water your plants, you may notice ripe tomatoes split their skins. This is from too much water too fast. The tomato skin thins and loses elasticity as it ripens. The riper these split skin tomatoes are, the more vulnerable they are to spoilage. If you are having trouble with tomatoes splitting then try picking them just a little underripe and let them finish ripening on your table or window sill.
Tomatoes are much more vulnerable to disease when fully ripe. You can also pick tomatoes underripe to ripen off the vine in wet years when tomatoes are more susceptible to anthracnose (blotchy deep rotten patches on the ripe fruit). I try to keep my tomato patch well picked, and I pick it back to about half ripe. This cuts down on how often I have to pick them (once or twice a week depending on the weather). Having little to no spoilage of any kind among the plants discourages disease outbreaks. Anthracnose is often the most common problem that actually affects the fruit besides bugs. The more moisture and humidity your region has the more likely you will see anthracnose show up as it has a very wide range of plants that are affected by it. Everything from brambles such as raspberries to oak trees to grape vines and more fall prey to anthracnose.
Plants That are Just a Little Too Happy
Every now and then someone will have “done everything just right” and have tomato plants loaded with tomatoes that will not ripen. These guys think they are immortal because they have no stress in their life and so they feel no pressure to ripen their fruit. This does not happen very often but I have heard of it. What you have to do is give them a little stress to kick them into gear. The easiest way to do this (but don’t overdo it!) is to take a shovel and on one side of the plant, cut some of the roots with your shovel blade. Don’t cut the plant off, just stick the shovel in the ground near the plant base on one side. If done right, this should add enough stress to motivate them to ripen without actually seriously damaging them.
Low Acid Tomatoes
Due to their high acid content, tomatoes are among the easiest of all vegetables to can. They do not require a pressure cooker, one can get away with only water bath canning these. Any Ball canning book has good instructions that can teach one how to process these.
Be aware that when you are canning “low acid” tomatoes you may have to add 1-2 tablespoons of vinegar per quart to raise the acidity to safely water bath these. Also, if you make spicy salsa with low acid tomatoes, it will be hotter than the same recipe made with high acid tomatoes. Acid slightly neutralizes capsaicin. I discovered this one year by accident when my yellow tomato salsa turned out significantly hotter than my regular tomato salsa. Same peppers, same recipe. Any salsa has enough vinegar in it to safely can, regardless of the acid level in the tomatoes.
Amish Goatbag Tomatoes
Shortly after moving to Iowa a neighbor took me to a local greenhouse called Yutzy’s, owned by a Mennonite woman who was known and loved for many miles around. I was first introduced to Edna when one of her employees beelined for the boss when she overheard my neighbor and I discussing seed saving. Edna came to me and asked if I would be willing to grow a variety of tomato for her and save the seed. So for a few years I traded the seed to her for some plants from her greenhouse.
This was a special seed that she could not get from a catalog. They were given to her by an Amish lady who had been growing them for a long time. The closest to a name she could get was she overheard a couple Amish ladies refer to them as “Goatbag” tomatoes. Although the resemblance was striking, Edna couldn’t bring herself to call them that and called them “Jumbo Paste” tomatoes.
Jumbo Paste was a fitting name as they are huge and so meaty that they are almost seedless. In the eyes of profit, they are a commissioned seed grower’s nightmare. It takes wheelbarrow loads of tomatoes to get a little seed and they are one big thick block of pulp. But for the small family gardener, these blocky tomatoes are ideal. The downside to this plant is that they are the vining-est tomato I have ever seen. They are a classic case of a plant putting all its energy into plant, as they don’t proportionately produce as many tomatoes as plant. They are also highly susceptible to anthracnose and absolutely need to be caged. But in the end they are without equal the best slicing and paste tomato I have ever seen.
My friend Deborah Miller planted these very late last year so they first came ripe just at frost. She harvested all the unripe ones all the way back to green, wrapped them in newspaper and stored them. Her family had “fresh” tomatoes well into January. She said she found these Goatbag tomatoes to be the best winter storage tomato she has ever tried, with good flavor and little to no storage decay.
At season end, when I am doing the last walk through before frost claims the summer garden, I pick a few green tomatoes, either little green cherry tomatoes to halve or some green Roma’s to slice and then I pickle them into “tomolives.” Basically a dill pickled green tomato. Khoke loves these baked onto a pizza instead of olives.
My father used to say that a good watermelon made the summer heat bearable. We always grew Crimson Sweet and his personal favorite Orangeglo, which is one of the sweetest yellow/orange fleshed watermelons. Some people find the color off-putting as the flesh has the color one thinks of associated with squash.
Watermelons are among the few garden residents that actually benefit from the extra heat that the black plastic mulch produces. They need hot weather to develop their sugars, and the plastic mulch gets them hot quicker. Under this plastic you will need to lay drip irrigation. Straw mulch is perfectly fine too for all the reasons we lay mulch but it does not heat the ground at all for the melons. I use straw mulch instead of plastic anyway, as in this case I don’t use the plastic mulch on principle.
Hurry Them Up
If you want a few melons to ripen ahead of the game, select a few of your larger specimens and set them up on something like an upside-down #10 can or on a cement block. Don’t crush any vines under the block. Raising them up gives them more exposure and accelerates the ripening process.
Is It Ripe Yet?
Everyone has their pet method for checking how ripe a watermelon is. The only one I particularly object to is the old practice of cutting a square out of the rind to check how ripe the flesh is and then replacing the square of the rind if it is not. This square will not heal over. You might as well cut it in half and eat it because it will spoil if left in the patch.
Khoke always raps the rind with his knuckles to listen for a hollow sound. This hollow sound indicates the watermelon is ripe. I am tone deaf to hollow sounds, it all sounds more or less the same to me. I always look at the tendrils on the vine to indicate ripeness and find this to be almost foolproof. Where the watermelon stem meets the vine is a tendril and at every leaf joint down the vine is another tendril. When the watermelon ripens these tendrils turn brown. I look for not only the tendril near the stem to be brown but for the three tendrils nearest the stem to have turned brown. This gives you a “good and ripe” melon.
Other indicators to look for include, when a watermelon is ripe, its belly that lays on the ground will turn yellow regardless of the color of the rest of the melon. A lot of watermelons, when ripe, will make a popping sound when you put your hand on the rind and lean on it. This is a good ripe melon. It will not pop twice and some melons will not pop at all so this is not a stand-alone test.
Once the melons start coming ripe, it is a good idea to go through the patch and pick all that are ripe every 10 days or so. These melons keep much better piled in the shade. If left in the patch they will continue ripening on their way to overripe.
Long Live the Vines!
Most years I have planted at least a couple plantings of melons to stagger the crop to keep them coming until frost. Last year I tried something new and I planted only one planting but had watermelons until frost. I share the melons I grow with others but this time I allowed no one else in the patch to select melons. Most people don’t look where they are going and tromp all over the vines, crushing them as they go. This shortens the life and production of the plants dramatically. So Khoke or I would walk the patch (carefully!), sliding our feet between and under the vines so as not to crush them. We’d pick the whole patch and store the melons in the shade, then we’d pick the patch again in 10-14 days. This was the happiest melon patch I’d seen in a very long time and it out-produced any I had ever grown. This regular full picking also stimulated the plants to keep producing.
Wild and Not-So-Wild Life
Watermelons, when small, can be stolen by groundhogs. Deer and coyotes like the ripe ones and if they take a notion, they can and will paw them open. This can require drastic measures to stop. It is easier to prevent this than to stop them once they have discovered the melons and started opening them. Don’t underestimate chickens either. I have seen chickens who learned how to open cantaloupe and watermelon, becoming a real nuisance this way and hastening their way to the dinner plate.
Early in the growing season every year, I walk the watermelon patch to survey the young melons’ progress. I bring along something sharp enough to scratch and then, just breaking the surface of the rind, I scratch little messages or names in. These scratches heal over to be found later when harvesting. It helps add just a little extra to the ordinary.
Every so often I have a year where I grow only one variety so that I can build up my seed for several years worth. Then in the meantime, I grow as many varieties as I want. Khoke’s favorite melon was Sugar Baby until I introduced him to Crimson Sweet. Charleston Grey has become a recent favorite too.
It takes about ½ mile isolation distance to save watermelon seed. But on the years that I grow multiple varieties in the same row, if I come across an exceptional melon, I save a little seed anyway! I grow no melons that I dislike, what could it hurt? Sometimes a mixed melon surprises you. One of the best watermelons that I ever tasted was a volunteer that was obviously a Moon and Stars crossed with a Black Diamond.
Some people like watermelon rind pickles. These should be made early in the watermelon season. The first round of melons to be picked tend to have a much thicker green rind than the melons picked later in the season. The outer skin on the rind is peeled and the white and green flesh that is not sweet is what is cubed to make these pickles. Khoke likes these and I usually forget to make them early enough in the season and by late season, the rinds are too thin.
Watermelon jelly is so mild that it lacks any distinct flavor. A longtime friend BJ Rose tried juicing some watermelon and cooking it into syrup. This syrup surprisingly looked and tasted very much like sorghum molasses and nothing like watermelon.
Watermelon Fruit Blotch
Watch out for a disease called Watermelon Fruit Blotch. This can be spread through contaminated seed. To get this disease under control once you have it, you need to pull out 100% of the plant matter and dispose of it off property. If you leave any infected plant matter or seed to grow voluntarily, it will infect the melons you plant next year. The risk is best avoided by saving your own seed. Buying seed is a fairly low risk roulette, but not risk-free.
Harvesting the summer garden is not only enjoyable (okay, harvesting spiny okra is never fun) but brings a feeling of deep satisfaction. I have never heard a gardener say, “I sure miss store bought tomatoes…”
The satisfaction continues through the dormant seasons with shelves lined with jars filled to feed us. Brightly colored canned food, spice jars filled with pungent home-dried herbs, dehydrated peppers, braids of onions and garlic, crates of squash and sweet potatoes upstairs and root crops in the cellar. We spend a season in their world and then they join us in ours.